The Reference Desk
We welcome all researchers, veterans, and those who are just starting out. In that spirit, we offer some general sources introducing Congregational and Christian history as well an orientation to some of our key digital resources. We also offer assistance with research-related questions. Contact us at 617-523-0470 extension 102 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The reference staff is happy to help with any questions, but please keep in mind that we limit staff time to approximately 30 minutes per reference request. If your inquiry requires more then the alloted 30 minutes, we ask that you visit the library or hire an outside researcher. The library is currently open by appointment only and you can read more about it here!
Exploring Congregational and Christian History
The best historical overview remains John Von Rohr's The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620-1957 (Pilgrim Press, 1992), a systematic treatment of theology, polity and worship from the landing of the Pilgrims to the forming of the United Church of Christ in 1957. The other standard is Williston Walker's Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, first published in 1893 and most recently reissued by Pilgrim Press in 1991.
The seven-volume Living Theological Heritage Series (Pilgrim Press, 1995-2004) is a collection of original documents tracing the history of the Congregational Christian tradition from its first-century roots to the present. All of the documents are framed by interpretive essays and introductions.
The minutes of the National Council of Congregational Churches, formed in 1871, have been digitized through 1923. These provide diverse information on denominational programs, decisions, personalities, and conflicts.
Research on Individuals
Our obituary database links researchers to basic biographical information on some 29,000 Congregational Christian ministers and missionaries. The list is strongest for the period after the Civil War to the present — denominational record-keeping was not as efficient before then — and includes information from several digital sources:
All of the denominational yearbooks, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, are available in digital form. They contain, among other information, membership statistics for individual churches, as well as the names and ordination dates for ministers.
Also available digitally are annual reports from regional conferences, lists of churches, and pertinent statistics from the General Convention of the Christian Church.
We have also digitized these annual denominational yearbooks containing church statistics, reports from seminaries and missionary organizations, and obituaries of prominent members, from 1873 through 1923.
Researching Individual Churches
Because Congregational and Christian churches had no central denominational office until the early twentieth century, records of individual congregations can be a challenge to locate. Many have been destroyed or simply lost, a situation the Congregational Library is working to rectify through our Hidden Histories program.
Our Hidden Histories collection contains a growing list of rare and previously inaccessible New England colonial-era church records, and our online catalog includes many individual histories of local churches, towns, and counties. In addition, denominational yearbooks provide data on membership, location, and names of pastors.
In many cases, however, local churches disbanded, federated, or merged, and changed their names accordingly. Researchers trying to locate these records will want to begin by consulting one of the sources below:
In the 1980s, for his Harvard doctoral dissertation, former Congregational Library director Harold Worthley visited every Congregational and Unitarian church in Massachusetts that had been organized before 1805. His immensely useful book provides a brief history of each church, as well as lists of the colonial-era records he found, and their locations at the time.
Researchers trying to locate records of an old church, or of one no longer in existence, will find this series immensely helpful. Richard H. Taylor's collection provides a well-researched and informative introduction for six different regions of the United States, and a detailed index of mergers, closings, and name changes for every known Congregational Church and post-merger Congregational Christian Church, from the colonial period to the present. Titles include:
The Churches of Christ of the Congregational Way in New England (1989), available in digital form
(We have transcribed Taylor's abbreviation keys for this book for easy reference.)